Hoke said you broke a sweat in warmups.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. I broke a sweat in warmups, but it was swell [Ed: I'm 90% sure Denard said 'swell'] watching the guys play. A lot of people say we weren’t going to get started playing the game because the rain and the weather were bad, but we actually got to play and [I] watched them play, and it was fun.”
Were you frustrated at all you didn’t get a chance to play during the scrimmage?
“Uh, it was kind of frustrating, but I love watching other people be succesfull, and talking to the guys making sure they do well, it’s all good. We had fun.”
What did you see from Russell and Devin?
“They were eager to make plays, and they were making plays, but we have to just stay focused and stop with all the three-and-outs.”
Were there things you were telling them as they were coming off?
“Certain things, like make sure you throw the ball faster, [do] a certain step -- three-step or five-step -- some of that stuff.”
Would you be interested in wearing the No. 1 jersey?
“Oh man, that’s an off-the-wall question. I don’t think about it. That’s for the receivers. The 1 is for the receivers. I’m not a receiver at all. I’m a quarterback. I’m supposed to be the best quarterback for the University of Michigan … You can ask Roy that question, not me.”
So you wouldn’t wear it?
“No. I feel like it’s a receiver thing, but if they want to give it to me, I don’t know what I’d do with it.”
(more after the jump)
The king of tight camera angles was really feeling it this time around, so we don't get a whole lot of detail, but it's April. Events are not thick on the ground.
Play 1: Denard fires a TE out to Brandon Moore, immediate tackle by Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan. Ricardo Miller comes into the frame late: 2TE set from the shotgun, or Miller's splitting his time between TE and WR.
Play 2: What looks like an inside zone from the shotgun breaks big. Ryan is coming around the backside and gets butt-blocked by Lewan, and that's all she wrote. Where is the SDE?
Play 3: Similar but Toussaint hits his gap closer to the frontside between Omameh and Barnum. Black gets handled one-on-one by Barnum and Toussaint jukes a filling safety I can't identify to dance into the endzone. I think that was probably Marvin Robinson since he was not a white guy and Gordon comes into the frame at the end of the play. Bolden and Talbott are also in with what seems like the first unit.
Play 4: Denard zips a deep slant just over the outstretched hand of Brennen Beyer that Jeremy Gallon snags impressively:
That's Countess to the left. He's concentrating on the interception instead of the tackle and gives up a bunch of YAC as a result.
Play 5: Marvin Robinson clubs a quick TE out for little gain. Second unit there: Ringer and Mike Jones are on the field.
Play 6: More 2-on-2s action as an inside zone to Rawls is well defended on the front side; Rawls cuts back behind Quinton Washington for a big gain. Washington is a three-tech next to NT Ash, so it's not really his fault. Where is the WDE?
Play 7: Denard under center. Iso handoff to Toussaint goes nowhere as Ryan makes a nice play. Campbell beat Barnum and forced Toussaint behind the A-gap where Hopkins was leading into; Morgan thumped the FB at the LOS. Bolden now running with the first team. probably because this is after Demens did this:
He took the opportunity to claim he'd be out for the season as an April Fools joke before revising that down to a few weeks and then a couple days.
Play 8: Vincent Smith power from under center goes nowhere. Bolden ends up tackling near the LOS. He does not bring his feet, causing someone to cry out "bring your feet!"
Play 9: Gardner launches a deep fly to Gallon; Countess is all over it, knocking it away.
Play 10: Under center power is pretty much stuffed until Ryan can't quite make a tackle on Toussaint as he breaks outside containment. He did a good enough job of stringing him out and slowing him down that Countess and other members can rally and hold it down. Michigan still can't run power from under center.
It is possible that Toussaint had a decent gain if he slammed it up in the hole.
Play 11: Denard sits in the pocket, getting no pressure, then runs around being all fast and stuff.
Play 12: Gardner waggle does not meet pressure on the edge. Gardner lofts a nice touch pass over Frank Clark to walk-on former DE Chris Eddins.
Interlude: Man, is Elliot Mealer's forehead red.
Also he has a great mountain man beard going on. Some potential here for Mealer to be Mike Hart's Pet Viking down the road.
Play 13: Another under center run should be consumed until Toussaint makes it into a decent gain. Toussaint has to dodge Beyer in the backfield. Campbell is stunting behind this and overruns the play a little bit; he's got help to the frontside and lets Fitz behind him. He gets enough of Toussaint to put him to the ground but not before the play gets six or seven.
Play 14: Denard hangs in the pocket and zings it to Gallon; ball is well behind him and Gallon has to make a moderately difficult catch. I don't think this is that bad of a throw—at the coaches' clinic Borges said he wants his QBs to hold the receiver up when throwing against zone, which this is. He doesn't want the QB to lead the WR into a defender. So this is somewhat intentional.
Talbott still out there with the first team.
Play 15: Another TE out, this one from Gardner to Jordan Paskorz and a bit deeper. Jarrod Wilson appears for the first time.
Play 16: Denard zings a TE in to Moore for a first down. Gordon tackles.
Play 17: Taylor Lewan blocks Ryan. We don't see the ball.
Play 18: Unidentifiable leaping guy (probably Ryan or Beyer) dissuades Denard from throwing the throwback screen. Instead he takes off and is fast and stuff.
Any takeaways here? It feels like the offensive line depth chart is approaching ink: Barnum has won the center job and Mealer is the guy at left guard. We haven't seen a snap that would suggest otherwise yet. Things can change when the cavalry arrives in fall; for now it looks like the veterans have the edge.
There are a lot of plays featuring tight ends, which is kind of odd since everyone's claiming their tight ends are a major issue and won't feature much during the year. Eddins, Moore, and Paskorz all feature. This may be the Johnny Sears move where you promote the weakest link on the team in an effort to keep spirits buoyed.
Other bits: Bolden passed Mike Jones the minute he showed up. Terrence Talbott could be a viable option at corner and may be pressing for some time. Also he has six arms and an FTL drive. /BOOM FredJackson'd. Campbell isn't getting blown up by Barnum. They've got some edge issues. Big ones, issues where you wonder if they weren't playing with ten guys on the field.
Denard is fast. Their under center running game is still poor. Jeremy Gallon is making some nice downfield catches, and Toussaint is on another level from Rawls and Smith. You can see the difference immediately in these tight-frame closeups.
Turnover margin is a notoriously jittery stat that does not often repeat year to year. Turnovers are infrequent and hugely impactful, so they tend to wander all over the place without much rhyme or reason, slaying or rescuing seasons. Yes, there are obvious repeatable factors that correlate with good or bad turnover margin on a macro level. Get to the quarterback and he will explode in a confetti of bad decisions; allow the opponent to get to yours and watch the same thing occur.
On a micro level, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, recovering around 75% of available fumbles. I know people want to believe there is a narrative that supports this model of football. When I returned from the Mattison coaching clinic presentation, one of the items I mentioned was that Michigan treats all incompletions as live balls in practice. I didn't think that was much of an explanation but a lot of commenters seized on it.
There does not have to be a reason that events transpire. It's not an Eastern thing. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, and how. SBN's Bill Connolly put together a stat called "adjusted turnover margin" that assumes an NCAA-average fumble recovery rate (50.3% for the D) and NCAA-average PBU-to-INT ratio (21.9%), compares it to your actual turnovers gained, and calculates a points per game figure Connolly figures is just the bounce of the ball. Drum roll…
Five Teams Who Benefited Most From Turnovers Luck
1. Michigan (+3.97 points/game)
2. Maryland (+3.97)
3. N.C. State (+3.61)
4. South Carolina (+3.61)
5. Oklahoma State (+3.40)
I am Jack's utter lack of surprise. Michigan's overall fumble recovery rate of 75% was first in the nation by a whopping eight percent! (Maryland was #2 at 67%.) They were three standard deviations above the mean! They were a full standard deviation above the #2 team in the country! This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!
This is the point where I talk about how lucky Michigan got last year and a lot of people say "nuh-uh." This gets a little frustrating on both ends. I get frustrated that something like that Sugar Bowl doesn't bring the point home; people who disagree with me get frustrated that I'm downplaying Michigan's success or being grim about next year.
They're not entirely wrong. I do think that if you replayed the 2011 season 1,000 times Michigan ends up 11-2 in relatively few of them. They were only sort of close in one of their losses*, won two-and-a-half nailbiters** and acquired 10 more turnovers than Connolly's model expects. Michigan also had the benefit of a soft schedule (no Wisconsin or Penn State) in a down Big Ten and an Ohio State team in shambles after tatgate. It was pretty uninspiring in terms of 11-2 years featuring wins over ND, OSU, and a BCS opponent despite undergoing massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster.
Which is to say: WOOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. Score.
But once we get past the woo and start talking about setting expectations for year two we should not base it off what Michigan did last year but what they should have done, what they lost to graduation and attrition, who they return and add, and who they play. We should start with the premise that Michigan was super lucky last year and probably won't be this year.
This doesn't mean their turnover margin is doomed. It just means their turnover margin is doomed unless Denard Robinson becomes a lot more responsible with the ball. Michigan got away with being –7 in interceptions because of the fumble surplus. That covered up a lot of blemishes last year.
What should we expect Michigan's turnover margin to be next year?
I am arguing it will be worse. I made similar arguments for much of the Rich Rodriguez era when Michigan was hugely negative every year and dammit it never changed.
Experience at quarterback. This is a double whammy to the good for Michigan: they've got a senior starter entering his third year and—even more important—his second year in Al Borges's system. A number of Michigan's turrible interceptions a year ago came paired with hand-wavingly-open receivers Michigan's quarterbacks just missed, like this one Gardner chucked against Purdue:
The ball is in the air here, but it's going to the double-covered Gallon instead of the hand-wavingly open Junior Hemingway. This wasn't pressure—Gardner had all day—it was a huge coverage misread. In year two these things should significantly diminish.
Fitzgerald Toussaint could be Mike Hart-like. IIRC Toussaint has not fumbled as a Michigan ballcarrier. As carries move to him from other sources—largely the fumble-prone Denard—Michigan should reduce the number of fumbles that can go against them. Fumble prevention/extraction is a skill.
The defense should be sack happy. Michigan finished 29th last year without getting great production out of its three-tech or weakside defensive end. Will Heininger had one sack last year; Craig Roh and Jibreel Black combined for 5.5. If the moves of Roh and Black inside upgrade the pass rush at three positions, the blitz-mad Mattison D will be in QBs' faces even more than they were last year.
Complicating factor: Mike Martin only had 3.5 sacks last year but his disruption opened things up for other people.
Protection should be good if the line is healthy. Lewan is an all Big Ten left tackle (at least) and Schofield is a touted recruit with a year of quality playing time under his belt with all the tools to pass protect on the edge. Wicked blind-side hits on Denard should be rare.
Denard is just turnover-prone. This has been a fact by air and ground ever since he hit the field. While he's going to improve with experience, sometimes players never have that light bulb pop on. Toussaint will shift some carries to his five points of contact but Denard will still get a bunch of carries, and he'll cough the ball up some.
Chucking sure interceptions up to Hemingway will result in interceptions because Hemingway is gone. Unless these are going to Gardner.
Hello massive reversion to the mean on fumble recoveries. If Michigan recovers over 70% of available fumbles this year I'll eat a lemon. Probably at the Rose Bowl.
If a tackle goes down, yeesh. Everyone's assumption is that this would see Kyle Kalis step in at right tackle. Mega-hyped recruit… and a true freshman.
Seriously, Denard is walking variance. I think Michigan will preserve its fairly positive TO margin. If they don't, we will all be sad about Denard's inability to shake the turnover bug. I can't predict he'll be better or worse until we see him play.
There's a reason a couple departing seniors picked Robinson—who was an All-American as a sophomore, remember—as a "breakout player" in that Rothstein article from yesterday($). He could break out. He could run in place, and not know which it will be makes predictions here even more useless than they have been in the past.
You may now return to thinking about Taylor Lewan on a tandem bike.
*[Even if Michigan does score against Iowa they have to get a two-point conversion and then win in OT, which is like a 20% shot.]
**[OSU should not have been since there was no reason to overturn the Toussaint TD that would have ended it.]
How does it feel to be a senior?
“Man, college goes by fast, and right now I’m taking on a leadership role and trying to be the best quarterback I can be for the team and be the best leader I can be for the team. Right now just trying to get better at everything I can get better at: watching film, going in with teammates and throwing extra routes, whoever’s around me, if we’re lifting, trying to tell them ‘get better at this’ and ‘get better at that.’ These are the things that I’m trying to do as a leader and as the quarterback on the team.”
Borges said you’re holding more people accountable. Is that the next step of development for you as a leader?
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I wasn’t an outspoken person. I didn’t do a lot of yelling and telling people, patting them on the butt and doing stuff like that. That’s one of the things I need to start doing, and that’s what I’m taking on this spring. For practice right now, I’ve been pretty well lately and talking to people and telling them what they need to do. Russ [Bellomy] was with me yesterday when we had practice. I told him if he took his time he’d make a better, more accurate throw. Those were some things that I did.”
Do you have to be the bad guy sometimes?
“Oh yeah, sometimes you have to get up in them. Help them out, give them their encouragement, but you can’t always be nice to them. I can’t always have a smile on my face.”
Is that possible?
“Oh yeah that’s possible. It’s possible.”
What was this offseason like for you?
“Learning. I mean --”
I don’t even mean football. I mean the enormity of, kind of, everything.
“Oh. Everything. I am a student. I am a student-athlete. Student first. Being part of that student body was one of the best experiences I’ve ever experienced on this campus. I’ve been in the Maize Rage at the basketball games, I’ve been at a hockey game watching them play, I’ve been to track watching the girls run. That’s one of the things I could never stay away from. I love watching sports. I love watching people that I know do better.”
How many sporting events do you think you went to?
You were on TV for every single one of them.
“I don’t know. I just try to go to all of them. If I had the chance, if I had the time, I’d try to go.”
Are you trying to do anything different with your body in terms of weight and strength?
“Trying to gain weight … whatever happens happens with that. Hopefully I gain a little weight.”
Does Hoke want you to gain weight?
“No. They never tell me about gaining weight. I have to take it into my own hands to gain weight.”
How is it taking snaps from Ricky?
“I’ve been snapping with Ricky since Rich Rod was here. My freshman year I was snapping with Ricky. Ricky’s one of the guys from Florida, so we can relate to each other. When he makes a mistake I’m right on him and telling him, ‘Let’s go. I’m right behind you 100-percent.’ He stayed competing and all of us are competing right now and trying to get better at everything. We’ve got some growing to do.”
He speaks Florida?
“Oh yeah. He does speak it. He helps me a lot in the huddle. Sometimes he tells the other offensive linemen what the play is. When Molk and Patrick used to get on me all the time, Ricky would help me out.”
Has anything changed for you over the offseason with the Obama stuff, etc.?
“No, because I enjoy interacting with people. That’s one of the things that I always enjoy. I come from a big family. Meeting new people is not a problem for me. I would love to meet everybody. If I see anybody on the street, I want to say hi to you. My goal is to make somebody’s day everyday. Hopefully I can do that.”
Borges said one of the keys for you is to cut down on interceptions. What is the most important part of being able to accomplish that?
“I’m going to tell you this. I play quarterback, and the number one thing about the quarterback is always take care of the ball. That’s one of the things that I need to stop doing. Turnovers. I had 15 interceptions. That’s not acceptable as a quarterback and something that I need to work on. I was throwing off my back foot -- that’s one of the things that kind of got me in a lot of trouble and I need to stay away from that. Making the right reads is one of the things I need to work on, too. All offseason I’ve been watching film and seeing the reads I should have made and how many touchdowns I missed. This year hopefully I don’t have that many mistakes.”
Is Devin athletic enough to catch the ball?
“Right now … both of us just have the same mindset. Whatever it takes for the team to win, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
How are his hands?
“Both of us have good hands.”
What was meeting Obama like?
“Oh man. That’s one of the days that I’m going to sit down and tell my grandkids. I met the president. That’s one of the things I’ll always cherish. As soon as I got done meeting him I called my mom, my dad, my brothers, and I was just telling them, ‘I just met the president. I just met the president of the United States.”
Did it catch you off guard at all?
“Me and Patrick were just like, ‘What?’ Patrick was right next to me and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he just called your name.’ ”
Have you thought about what the expectations are going to be this fall?
“We already know our expectations. We’ve been working on that all offseason. We’re trying to get better. It starts now. Get prepared for September 1st. Our goal is to win the Big Ten every year. That’s one of the things we already said that’s set in stone. We just have to be ready to work for it and all offseason just keep working for it and working at it. Holding each other accountable. It’s right there. We have to take care of it.”
How does it change your mentality to actually know who your running back is this year?
“We don’t know anything. We don’t know who the quarterback’s going to be. I’m going to tell you this. We have to come out and compete every day. Every day. Nothing’s handed to you. And that’s better that you know that you have to compete every day.”
You really don’t think you’re going to be the quarterback this fall?
“We have to compete every day.”
Hoke has said you had a great attitude last year despite not getting as many catches or numbers. Can you talk about how you dealt with that and what you’re looking forward to this year moving outside?
“I was buying in, just listening to what the coaches were saying. I wasn’t going out there and looking at the numbers and stats each game. I was just going out there and competing. It played out well, going to the Sugar Bowl and winning it. That was a great season for us.”
Was it hard at all going through that transition?
“No, not at all, because any point in the game we can get the ball in and see the seniors doing well last year and leading this team. I was just looking up to them. Even though I probably had one catch a game, that one catch was made effective.”
Did you ever get frustrated not getting footballs thrown your way?
“No. Our goal during the season was knockdowns. Every game we were just trying to have more knockdowns than one another. We really weren’t worried about the ball because the quarterback is the one with the ball in his hand and he’s the one making the right decisions.”
Is there a transition in moving to flanker?
“More motion. We’ve been doing this since January. We always rotated Y’s in different formations last year. It’s something I’m used to now because the extra [work] that we’ve been putting in trying to learn new plays and new positions that everyone’s at. I’m getting comfortable with it. More motions and really have to stay in shape.”
Why is that?
“Oh man, because you’re moving around all the time. Lining up in the slot or lining up outside. Just something I’m taking in and learning through spring ball.”
Do you see any differences in Denard this spring?
“Yeah, yeah I do. The timing is there. He’s making better reads. Staying composed back there. Now he knows the offense. It’s fluid. Practice goes smoother. I don’t see him frustrated or anything. I really see that he’s composed.”
Is he more decisive?
“Yeah he’s reading the defenses well out there. Just taking his time. You can actually heard the play fluent in the huddle again. I talk about him all the time saying he’s so country you can barely hear him, but now we’ve been in the offense for a year, we like listening to him better.”
Last year he often threw balls that put you in a position to get crushed. Has there been less of that these days?
“I mean, he’s the quarterback. They’re going to have their ups and downs. The wide receivers, just know our time to make the plays. If it’s a low ball, go get the low ball. You can’t just blame everything on the quarterback because they might be getting rushed half the time while we’re coming out of our routes. You never know until you watch it on film. He’s really been fluid in his passing. Getting better. Seeing him healthy, seeing him composed back there just making things right.”
How has Brandon Moore been?
“Yeah, Brandon Moore’s my roommate. I just talk to him everyday and see how practice went because I’m only with them during skelly and team, not individually. Him being a senior. Leadership -- we always say that seniors have leadership. He’s been doing well. Catching the ball good and running great routes and blocking. This is his year, I feel like. If you go out there and practice and show the coaches you can be trusted out there, it’s really going to be an impact this season.”
What’s Brandon like off the field?
“Shy. Calm. Smart. He doesn’t really do anything. Half the time he’s playing with his dog. Big Doberman that he has.”
What’s its name?
“Kane. I don’t mess with dogs.”
“I got bit when I was younger, so I don’t mess with them.”
How has Denard progressed off the field?
“Oh, just speaking. He’s been outgoing this year. Being a quarterback, that’s what it takes because everybody’s looking up to the quarterback. Just seeing him become a senior. Now he just said, man this went by so fast. Now everybody’s going to be looking up to him. All our seniors. We take real great impact in being a senior and having leadership, just like Team 132 seniors did, trying to accomplish something better.”
Denard hasn’t always been a real vocal guy. How has that transition been for him?
“He was a shy kid coming in, but now he’s mature more. Just taking it day by day, like how we work out. We’d be partners half the time just pushing each other. Just seeing that from ‘Lace. That’s giving him extra points because he wasn’t like that at first.”
Does it get the receivers fired up when you hear things like ‘What is Michigan going to do without Junior Hemingway’?
“(Roundtree talked about something that sounded like “croop thick” or “group think.” I have no idea, so I’m not going to transcribe it) … It doesn’t matter who’s out there. Being blessed to play here, playing for Michigan. Coach Heck always said that we lost some great wide receivers, but being a senior -- I’m the only senior up here going through the ups and downs and learning from each class -- most of them look at me because I’ve played the most. But I feel like we have a nice group of kids now. Everybody you haven’t heard about, but most of them you will.”
Have you taken to mentoring any of the younger receivers?
“Oh yeah. Half the time they ask me questions it’s like I’m a teacher out there. It’s weird because I did the same thing when I was a freshman, asking the upperclassmen. But now I’m just schooling them.”
What kinds of things do they ask you?
“Just like how you read the coverage on this route, how to get off press coverage. Just simple stuff because coach Heck does a great job coaching us in different steps in the offense.”
Any of the younger guys impress you?
“I know Joe Reynolds, I know J.J. (Jeremy Jackson). I see a lot of them and go like, wow made a great catch or did something. That’s what I expect to hear, so it’s not like I haven’t seen it before.”
Do you talk to Junior about playing his position?
“Yeah I talk to Junior all the time. Me and Junior are still close friends. He just said stay in shape, you’re going to have a lot of motions and reading the defense. Something I was already used to, reading it from the slot position. I feel like I’m not back at slot, but it seems like I am because of all the motions and getting closer to the inside and whatnot. He just said just stay in shape.”
Does being a leader come naturally now for you?
“After being four years in the defense and on this team, I think it’s something that’s starting to come naturally. I think we have a lot of seniors that are stepping into that role, and that’s going to be huge for us this fall. Our senior leadership is going to be huge.”
Have you seen more consistency out of Will Campbell?
“Yeah, no doubt. It’s not just on the field. It’s off the field. He’s holding meetings for the defensive linemen to get in and watch film. He’s helping them out. We’ve got a lot of young guys on the defensive line, and he understands that and he understands he’s a senior and he has to be a leader. He’s really stepping into that role and filling that role nicely for us.”
How does Jarrod Wilson look?
“Good. I think he’s going to be a good ball player. At the same time, we’re only four practices in, only two in pads. He’s been impressive so far as have the other underclassmen. We’re going to need those guys to continue to get better.”
How does he compare with how you remember other freshman safeties playing in the past?
“He’s made quite a few plays so far. He’s had the opportunity because we’ve been somewhat thin at safety, so he’s been getting a good look and he’s been taking advantage of it. Like I said, he still has a ways to go. He’s still young. He’s got a bright future here. He’s going to get better in the spring and in the fall I look forward to how he can play.”
Is it weird returning so many guys in the secondary? That’s never happened for you before.
“Well I think what’s weird is I’m going to have the same defense for two years in a row. I don’t think I’ve ever had that in my four years here. I think that that’s something that’s going to help us a lot. We’re getting comfortable with the playcalling and with the different plays. We bring a lot of defensive players back. We bring a lot of seniors back. That’s going to be huge for us. It’s nice to be comfortable with the guys you’re out there with and the plays.”
Have you been able to sit back and marvel at how much better the defense got between 2010 and 2011?
“A little bit, but at the same time we’re already on to the next year and we’re looking forward to getting even better.”
Hoke talked about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in practice. Is that new to this spring or has he done that before?
“We’ve been competing since he’s gotten here in everything that we do. That’s something he brought with him, whether it’s in the weight room or out on the practice field in spring practice or even in fall camp. There’s winners and losers. Competition’s important and we thrive in that. That environment is important for us to be successful.”
What happens when you lose?
“Gassers or some sort of punishment.”
Walker, Gardner, Avant (L to R)
After yesterday's one-two gut punch of basketball news, let's talk football, shall we? The story that will likely dominate the spring is the potential move of quarterback Devin Gardner to wide receiver, at least part-time. Gardner, in case you didn't see Brian's UV yesterday, showed some pretty serious skills at receiver when camping as a high schooler. He's also 6'5", athletic, blessed with hands large enough to make the catch above, and familiar with the offense. Meanwhile, Michigan's two known quantities at receiver are Roy Roundtree, whose production plummeted last year when QB OH NOES wasn't a regular part of the playbook, and Jeremy Gallon, who looks quite promising but is also listed at 5'8".
Gardner taking some snaps at receiver is a good idea then, right? I certainly think so, but I've heard several arguments to the contrary. Allow me to present them, then do my best to crush them.
Argument 1—Gardner shouldn't play receiver because if he's hurt at wideout and Denard gets inevitably dinged (or hurt himself, God forbid) we're totally screwed.
This is the argument I've seen the most, and the mentality behind it is one I absolutely hate. Yes, I'm aware that Michigan has just three scholarship QBs on the roster. That is the reality for this year and it's not an optimal one. Denard Robinson has been known to get knocked around on occasion, sometimes requiring a backup cameo. He's a running quarterback. Injuries happen.
But it takes a large leap from "Michigan is thin at QB" to "Gardner can't play wideout because injury doomsday scenario." First of all, if Denard gets hurt, that's a doomsday scenario in and of itself. If Gardner is hurt at the same time, well, the football gods hate Michigan. Does the slim chance of this worst-case scenario happening mean Michigan shouldn't play one of their best athletes at a position in dire need of help when he otherwise wouldn't see the field? No.
Simply put, college coaches cannot operate under the assumption that the worst will happen. That's the same line of thinking that made coaches doubt the viability of the forward pass (remember, only three things can happen when you throw, and two of them are bad) and causes the Zooks of the coaching world to punt on 4th-and-3 from the opponent's 38. Brady Hoke has proven that he's got some serious cajones, and that's generally regarded as a fantastic trait in a head coach. This is not how he operates.
Also, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy may very well be an equally viable backup option as Gardner, or at least at the point where the dropoff between the two backups isn't large enough to justify keeping Gardner on the bench when he could be contributing at wideout. Which brings me to the next argument...
Argument 2—Gardner shouldn't play receiver because it'll take away from his practice reps at quarterback and he won't develop.
This one holds more water than the first argument, but I still don't agree with it. Gardner is already splitting backup reps at QB with Bellomy, and unless you think Gardner needs a ton of "mental reps," I don't think it hurts to have him spending his non-throwing practice time running routes and catching passes.
It's not like Gardner is switching sides of the ball. In fact, playing receiver can help with his quarterback play; running routes can hone timing, understanding of schemes, and keep him sharp and ready to see the field.
This year's NFL draft will provide a great example of a player who went through a very similar mid-career situation. Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill was a three-star dual-threat QB in the 2007 class, redshirting in his first season. As a redshirt freshman, he battled for the starting QB job but ultimately fell behind two other players. At 6'4", 220 pounds, Tannehill was moved to receiver in fall camp by head coach Mike Sherman. All he did was catch 55 passes for 844 yards and five TDs.
The next year, Tannehill again competed to start at quarterback, but lost out to Jerrod Johnson. As the primary backup, A&M could've handed him a headset, but instead they threw him back out there at receiver. Tannehill had 46 receptions for 609 yards and four TDs while also appearing in three games at QB in mop-up duty. As a junior, Tannehill started the season as a receiver but earned the starting nod as a quarterback partway through the year, completing 65% of his passes and throwing 13 TDs to just six interceptions. After a strong senior season as the full-time starter at QB, Tannehill is expected to go in the top 12 in this year's NFL draft. If playing receiver stunted his development as a quarterback, it wasn't enough to merit keeping the team's best receiver off the field.
Argument 3—The dumbest argument ever.
Sorry to put you on blast, Eric Lloyd, but I can't let this just slide on by:
@AceAnbender Why would you try this without trying Denard at WR first? That's for sure his NFL future and Gardner is better QB.
— Eric Lloyd (@EricLloyd) March 21, 2012
Just no. If I seriously have to argue this point, and I hope I don't for 99.9% of you out there, I'll keep it short. Denard Robinson is about to be a senior in his second year under the current system, coming off an All-Big Ten season that followed up one of the most productive years by a quarterback in the history of college football. Whether or not he's going to be a quarterback at the next level, it's by far the most optimal position to play him at in college.
Devin Gardner has attempted 17 career passes—10 against Bowling Green in a 2010 curb-stomping—and has spent his entire career as a backup quarterback. If he's better at this point in his career than Denard, he hasn't made that apparent to anyone who would have the best idea about whether or not that was the case. End of argument that hopefully never needed to be made.
Michigan can explore the opportunity of sticking a 6'5" playmaker on the field at a position of huge need, or they can keep Devin Gardner on the bench for fear that the worst thing ever will happen. Unless you're the type to keep a fully-stocked bunker in case of the nuclear holocaust, the choice here is rather apparent.
"I got you guys broken in."
How does Rocko Khoury’s departure affect the center battle?
“Well we do, yeah. We have enough guys to compete. You always would like more numbers, offensive line wise particularly because we’re not deep at the position. We have a couple kids, Ricky Barnum, Jack Miller -- I think will be good centers. Ricky has a good profile for the position, probably even more so than when he played guard.”
Are you experimenting with Devin Gardner at other positions?
“We’re doing what we did a year ago, pretty much. We’re giong to play the best 11 guys. Devin’s the backup quarterback right now. He’s number two, and we’re going to do what we have to do to get the best 11 on the field. Nothing’s changed in that perspective, so we pretty much have the same mentality that we had.”
Are you looking at him at wide receiver?
“Yeah … the practices are closed for a reason.”
Are you able to work on more experimental things now that you’ve had a year with this team?
“Later on, yeah. Not right now. First thing [is] we’re not going to get real fancy the first couple days of practice. We’re going to go through a little refresher course on the offense, take them about four or five days of practices to do that. Once we get to where we’ve pretty much got it back -- kids learn the stuff much faster now for obvious reasons -- then we’ll start dabbling more in some of the offseason research we’ve done on some stuff, whether it be deuce package or moving folks around. So we’re always evolving constantly, and we’re always trying to figure out how to get our best 11 on the field to do what they do best. That may not be not consistently be the same 11 guys all the time. You may change the the 11 so that you can get a guy out there that may be able to do something that may not be able to do it on some other plays. Devin’s part of that. We’ve got about five guys that are involved in that.”
Is it more difficult for an offensive lineman to switch to center than anywhere else on the line?
“Well, center, because the ball’s involved, you have the issues there in terms of snaps. But once a kid’s played center for a while, they usually prefer it. They know exactly when the ball’s coming up. They can control the line play a little better. But center’s a little different animal than tackle or guard. Mike [Schofield] had played tackle, so it wasn’t a huge transition for him.”
How do you balance being physical in practice with your lack of depth on the offensive line?
“Boy, that’s tough. That is hard. You have to be smart with it, but if you don’t get accomplished what you’re trying to get accomplished, then spring football’s a waste of time. We’re always going to err on the side of getting after it a little bit, and if you have to pull off, we’ll pull off. We just believe that the game’s played with a physical demeanor and we’re not ever going to stop that regardless of guys getting hurt. We’re going to be smart, but we’re never going to stop thinking that way.”
Where do you think Denard stands in terms of throwing downfield?
“I think the first two days of practice, he’s made a marked improvement in that because he basically understands the offense better. It’s always a work in progress. There’s still errors here and there, but there are less. I think as he goes and understands better and better you’re going to get a better product. There’s two issues with Denard, and that’s one: the overall understanding of the offense, which I know is going to be better, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, and the footwork issues, which generally cause a lot of the interceptions. We’re working on it everyday, and he’s so keenly aware of it. When he makes a mistake, he’s getting to a point now where he can almost coach himself. He’ll come out and say, ‘Oh I screwed up.’ He’ll tell me before I tell him. I’ll never assume it. I’ll still tell him. He’s tired of me telling him the same things, but he knows how I think as a coordinator and how I think as a position coach. One thing about the kid is he’s a very good football guy. He understands the game really well. He has great instincts. Now that he’s got a year in the system, I think some of those instincts will show up more than that, and that’s scary.”
What do you know about Denard now that might change the way you coordinate the offense?
“Well, not much than what I knew at the end of the season. He’s a great runner. He’s taken on a leadership role which is exciting to me. It’s exctiing to all of us. Those types of things. And we can probably do a little bit more now because he understands without doing it too much, where you get paralysis by analysis.”
Did he get enough time with Ricky in the offseason to get comfortable?
“Yes. Yeah, he did. He and Ricky have been working it out for a while and Jack too. All of them. They’re always on their own just go out and snap balls and working the skelly drills and all that. This isn’t the first time they took a snap. It wasn’t yesterday or the day before yesterday.”
How do you replace Junior?
“Boy that’s the best question that’s been asked so far. That’s not been easy to do. One way we are doing it is with Roy Roundtree. Roy is moving to flanker. Roy was a split end last year. He played flanker in some spots. Because we split time with him and Jeremy Gallon, Roy took some hits with his numbers, but going to Junior’s position, a healthy Roy Roundtree is really running well right now. Best I’ve ever seen him run. But a healthy Roy Roundtree could really have a good season. I’m thinking great things about Roy. Roy’s had such a great attitude. He did take a hit with numbers, and it would be natural to second guess a lot of things, but he didn’t, and because he didn’t, he’s improving daily.”
Was Roundtree unhealthy at all at any point last season?
“Not really. I think he stayed in one piece pretty good. But out of flanker now you get a lot more balls thrown your way. You saw Junior -- a lot of time you catch that thing and there’s some folks around you. But I have no doubt that Roy Roundtree’s going to have a heck of a year.”
Can he be your vertical deep threat?
“Yes he can. Yes he can. You bet he can. He’s got excellent speed. He goes and gets the ball. He can definitely be that without question, and so can Jeremy Gallon for that matter.”
Who besides Roundtree are you looking for at that position?
“Jerald Robinson. Jerald Robinson, in two days, has been very impressive. Big, physical receiver. Very much like Junior. Not quite as big as Junior, but still big. Has excellent hands. Ran on the scout team quite a bit. Not because he wasn’t good enough to play -- he was good enough to play, but we were pretty good at wide receiver and we never got a chance to use him. But this year Jerald’s going to get a great look. So far what we’ve seen, he’s going to make a contribution, and he is that big physical guy much like Junior was. If you’re aksing how to replace [Junior], he’s definitely at least one answer. ”
You saw Fitz Toussaint’s vision improve over last season. What’s the biggest thing you want to see take a jump up this spring for him?
“Well that to continue, number one, and improve his pass receiving skills. He’s got good hands, but we used Vince so much in that capacity that I’d like for Fitz to be equal to what Vince did so we don’t have to take him out all the time. Pass protection still can improve. We ask our backs to block. That can always get better. Those types of things. Refining more of the little things about his game, where a year ago there were some huge factors, the vision being at the top of the list. The more we learn with Fitz, the more he plays, the faster he learns and the issues go away with him. Some backs they never go away. They never gain good vision because they simply don’t have very good vision. He does. He just needed the time and I think that’s going to be the case with the other things we’re talking about.”
How do you envision using a player like Justice Hayes?
“He’s another one. We’re going to take a good look. Knowing that Fitz has been productive, we don’t have to overuse Fitz in the spring, yet still try to improve him. I’m not talking sit him on the sideline and let him watch, he’s still playing now. But that being said, it isn’t like last spring where we have to run him and run him and find out what he can do. We kind of know what he can do. That’s where we can use Justice now is give Justice a chance to carry that ball, tote it a few times, get him in some pass protection situations. He’s got some great receiving skills, see if he can do that, but this is a big spring for him.”
Switching between shotgun and under center puts a lot of stress on the center. How does Ricky’s transition to the position affect how you run your offense?
“Well, because we are under center some and because our center basically quarterbacks the offensive line -- he puts them all on the same page with regard to targeting fronts where it be in pass protection or running. That position is absolutely critical that we get productivity out fo the position. You need a smart guy that’s athletic and knows how to use his help. We don’t ask our center to consistently single block a nose guard, but he’s got to know how to make the call to allow for some help for him. I could go into all the nuances, but it’s endless what that kid's got to do. It’s not an easy position to play. ”
Do you anticipate being under center more this season?
“I don’t think it’s going to be much different. We’re still basically a shotgun team. I mean, we have a quarterback that can run, and the best way to exploit that is for him to be in the shotgun. Yet we still want to downhill run. You look the last two or three games of the season, that’s really what we want to be. We don’t want to be a total shotgun team. But knowing that the shotgun is going to be very very prominent simply because of the skillset of our quarterback. So in answer to your question, we’re basically going to be what we were a year ago.”
How quickly is Ricky learning how to make all the pre-snap decisions?
“He’s doing a great job. He’s still got a few deals. Now Greg’ll throw you some defenses that will test your center’s ability to adjust. It’s still a work in progress … and the more he sees it the better he’s going to get at it, the better he’s going to understand it and the better he’s going to get the other guys to understand it, because that’s part of his job, too. I’m not concerned about Ricky. He keeps progressing like I think he will. He’ll be a good center.”
Has anyone caught your eye at tight end yet?
“Not yet, but they’re not doing bad. No one has jumped out and said, ‘Oh my god, look at that guy.’ But they’re not doing bad. Brandon Moore’s been consistent. Ricardo Miller, who really is more of a move guy, but he’s played with his hand on the ground a little bit. He understands our offense. Very athletic. Very athletic. Athletic as any tight end we got. Used to be a wide receiver so he has speed and he has receiving skills. He’s another one that’s going to get a great look. Who knows, we have some freshmen coming in. If they show up, they’ll have an opportunity to contribute there, too. So we’ll see how that goes. It’s still too early. We haven’t put pads on yet. I want to save judgement on that position until we’ve been through a few practices with pads on and guys blocking at the line of scrimmage because that’s so critical to what we want to do.”
What have you learned about Devin, and how can that help you prepare for the season?
“Well he’s an incredible athlete. He has so many dimensions to him. He’s smart, so he picks stuff up fast. He doesn’t have any problem that way. That being said, every time you put together a plan, you have to find out how to factor him into it somewhere. Again, if it doesn’t sacrifice any other phases of your game. As you guys saw last year, we’re always looking for opportunities to get him in the game in some way shape or form without breaking the rhythm of the quarterback, which I don’t think we did. And seeing to it that we use him getting the ball, use him throwing the ball, and use him decoying. With that in mind, doing the same thing with Denard.”
Do you feel like you’ll use him more this season?
“I don’t know. I want to see. Maybe. I don’t know yet. We’ll see. It’s a matter of how. That’s the key. What are you going to do? We’ve done a lot with him, but there’s still a lot more that he can do, so we’ll see.”
Is his athleticism such that it’s better than your other skill position players?
“No. It’s very much like that -- he’s an athletic quarterback. I wasn’t here -- but Devin was recruited as the number one dual threat quarterback in the country, was he not? Generally those guys can do a lot of stuff. He was not a prototypical drop back passer type, although he was recruited by prostyle teams and spread guys, so he can do that stuff. He’s certainly one of our better athletes on the team, and we have to find a way to exploit that.”
Is he open to all of this?
“Oh yeah. Yeah. He wants to play.”
Are you concerned that giving him looks at other positions will disrupt his growth as a quarterback?
“Nope. Nope. Not at all. Smart kid, he’ll be fine.”
What do you like about Russell Bellomy?
“Russ is very athletic -- another athlete. Very good athelte. Can run the ball. He was recruited too by spread teams and pro-style guys. Accurate passer. His arm is improving strength-wise all the time. If you tell him once, he’s got it. He’s one fo those guys. You don’t have to re-tell him ten times. He’s got it down. He’s got composure. He can get himself out of a lot of messes when things break down, and he can run. He can run designed quarterback runs, although I don’t know you’re going to run as many as you would with Denard. But if you turn him loose he will hurt you. He has that kind of ability. We’re looking more at him because it’s spring time and we’re trying to give him some time. Like we’re talking about Fitz, where we’re giving Justice Hayes time and it may cost Fitz a few reps, we’re going to look at Russ more and cost Denard a couple reps or even Devin a couple. But we have to see them all now. This is our chance. Once we get into the season and we’re game planning all the time, it’s tough to give everybody enough chances.”
Do you start game planning at all for Alabama this early?
“Oh yeah. Yeah. We do. Kids are watching Alabama now. They come in on their own and they’ll look at Alabama. Right now it’s about developing our football team. We don’t have an opponent in front of us other than ourselves right now. We’re trying to develop our football team, try to get every guy a little better every single day and build up to that. Build up to that, get through spring fotoball, and as you get closer to the game, you get more focused on the task at hand, but right now we have a heavy emphasis this spring on becoming a fundamentally better offense. We talked about it. We’re allotting the time in practice for it. Whereas last year we were trying to be fundamental and installing our offense. That was a headache. Now second year, we have it installed, we’re just trying to get better with our footwork at every position -- offensive line, running back, you name it. Just doing the little things better.”
How confident are you in Schofield’s ability to transition back to right tackle?
“I think he’ll do fine because it’s really a more natural position for him. He has a tackle profile He’s 6-foot-6 plus. He was a hurdler in high school, somebody told me, and it’s obvious because he can move. He’s really more of a tackle body type than he is a guard body type, although he did a nice job at guard. This is where we need him now, he’s very receptive to it, and so far he’s done a nice job.”